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The Really Big Question

June 2, 2000
Related Topics: Retention, Featured Article
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Everyone is asking, how can we attract and retain people in a period when unemployment is less than 2% in many states? Yes, it's a big problem. But that's a tactical question when the problem is strategic.

When there is a shortage of talent it does little good to spend one's energy on recruitment and retention tactics. The really big question is, "How do we create an organization that naturally attracts and holds people."

In short, how do we become an employer of choice? That is the more important strategic issue. When we solve that, short-term tactics become obvious.

The most common answer to becoming an employer of choice is to load up on new benefits. Companies now offer everything from valet dry cleaning and laundry services to bring-your-pet-to-work. Does this work?

Somewhat, but only until your competitor offers the same. It is akin to airlines offering frequent flyer miles. After the first one did it, everyone followed suit and now no one can afford to drop it, although there is no competitive advantage in it and all it did was raise operating costs.

What attracts people to a new church? Is it cushions on the benches? Is it freshly painted walls? Is it ample parking?

Being an employer of choice is not driven on innovative benefit programs. They don't generate a sustainable competitive advantage. And don't ever try to take away a benefit. Once a benefit, always a benefit. The professional literature is filled with horror stories of companies that tried to reduce or change a benefit.

The Boeing case is one of the best examples. Recently, when management decided to change the way it funded a benefit plan you would have thought that they were asking for the surrender of the employee's first born child.

In reality, the proposed change would have hardly any noticeable effect on employees pocket books. Yet, this move spawned a unionization campaign which eventually cost the company a 40-day strike and $40 million more than the cost of the benefit.

Being an employer of choice is a cultural issue. It's similar to starting a religious movement. What attracts people to a new church? Is it cushions on the benches? Is it freshly painted walls? Is it ample parking? None of those things hurt, but they do not elevate this church above all others. Cushions deteriorate. Walls need repainting and parking lots develop pot-holes.

People choose a new church because of the message that is coming from the pulpit. They like what the pastor stands for and the gospel that is preached. What does your pastor (CEO) stand for and what gospel (vision) is being preached and lived?

I submit that there are a few essentials that create an employer of choice. They are:

1. Fair treatment. Everyone preaches it. Some deliver it.

2. Interesting, challenging work. Thirty years ago Fred Herzberg said, 'If you can't enrich a job get rid of it (outsource it).'

3. An exciting, fun place to come to everyday. Look at the faces. Are your people excited and positive?

4. Opportunity for growth. Everyone promises it. Few invest in systems and tools for helping people achieve it.

5. MOST IMPORTANT AND AN ABSOLUTE REQUIREMENT: (Cue the bugles).

Honestly believe and act as though people are not hard-to-manage expense items, but rather are value-adding assets.

Nearly, but not quite, everyone now acknowledges that people are the primary lever in the service oriented, knowledge driven economy. Yet the management methods employed have changed little since the 1960s when the human relations movement said, "Give people a sense of involvement."

The evidence is that

  • Few companies truly differentiate between better than average and less than average performers when salary increases are doled out.
  • Training is often denied people by supervisors who won't let them take a few hours off the job to learn
  • Top management accepts hearty bonuses and stock options while holding annual salary budget increases to less than 5%.
  • Staff and line personnel are treated differently because staff personnel are labeled expense centers; the most ludicrous of all concepts. Who would create a function that does not add value?
  • When times get tough, what do we do with our "most valuable assets"; we dump them on the unemployment lines.

There is little logic and less common sense behind the way most top management treat their valuable human assets. They continually try to buy them off with expensive toys and then pout when the people leave for another place with better toys. If one wants to create a place that naturally draws and retains top talent, a long-term outlook and investment needs to be made in people.

The payoff is reduced turnover disruption, lower operating cost and higher productivity.

Let me put it in the simplest terms I can think of. If you want someone to love you, do you give them toys? Or do you give them respect and support and listen to them when they talk to you? That s what an employer of choice does. This is the really big answer to the really big question.

 

Other columns by Jac Fitz-enz:

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